The Professionals: Copyediting vs. Proofreading

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Orsi Korman, Account Director, Content, Red Havas 

Not all of us are born – or even care about – being good at spelling and grammar. Some thrive on writing beautifully crafted stories, catchy headlines, memorable speeches or witty remarks, while others dread stringing a few words together for an email – especially if it’s an important email. Fun fact: Even though humanity has a long history of linking good writing (especially spelling) skills to intelligence, there is no correlation. What’s more, there is plenty of help out there. The bad news: automated spelling and grammar checkers don’t know everything – and they certainly aren’t stylish. (I correct auto correct more than auto correct corrects me.) So be sure to rely on the professionals for any important copyediting and proofreading jobs.

Who are they?

Not all proofreaders are copyeditors, but all copyeditors are proofreaders. Proofreading is about eliminating spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting mistakes, while keeping the messaging, flow and style relatively intact. Copyediting goes well beyond that, also making the text more readable by assessing everything else: clarity, consistency, relevance, style, flow, quotes and citations. While the former is focused on making it grammatically correct, the latter will ensure it reads well, makes sense and, most importantly, people will want to read it. As a result, more often than not, a copyedit is more likely to be requested than ‘just’ a proofread.

When we hear editor, most of us will think of the likes of Jackie Onassis with Viking Press (The Editor, by Steven Rowley, is a great fictionalized account of the latter years of the iconic 20th-century figure), or Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and the glamorous fashion publishing world of New York. Today’s editors plan, coordinate and/or revise a wide variety of material for publication not only in books and magazines, but newspapers, e-newsletters, websites, social media, film and television as well. They may also hold seemingly less glamorous in-house positions with large corporations, political organizations, agencies, associations, charities or educational institutions. (If your organization doesn’t have a dedicated copyeditor or proofreader, your communicator will certainly do the job.) Whether they are in highly visible roles or working behind the scenes, editors do have the power to make everyone and everything look good – and while their work may not be noticeable, the absence of it usually is.

How do they do it?

Great spellers are often avid readers, committing a lot of words to memory and studying prefixes, suffixes and definitions that will help them deduce how a word is spelled. Great editors are unquestionably avid readers, viewers and listeners of a wide variety of content, to be able to effectively support an equally wide variety of content themselves. 

Proofreaders usually get involved towards the end, serving as one of the checkpoints before final approvals are granted and something gets posted, published, presented or otherwise distributed. Editors often get involved at the very beginning – and stay involved throughout – reviewing story ideas, commenting on storylines, titles and headlines, and deciding what material will appeal most to specific audiences. 

While there are several urban legends out there about the most effective ways to copyedit or proofread something – reading it backwards, changing the font and color, reading it out loud, or going old school on paper with a red pen, for example – in reality, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, only some common themes. After a thorough spelling and grammar check, other areas to review will include: 

  • Seeking consistency in noun/verb agreement, syntax and tenses
  • Using strong verbs and striving for an active voice as appropriate 
  • Minimizing unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, fillers and redundancies
  • Avoiding repeat words (actually using a Thesaurus to change things up)
  • Verifying names, dates, places, quotes, links, references and citations
  • Spicing up the headline, subheads, captions and callouts for added interest
  • Reading through several times to ensure clarity, consistency, flow, relevance and – ideally – overall appeal 

How can you help?

As an account manager, assistant, colleague or customer seeking help from an editor, the best you can do is tell them everything. The more they know about the background of a piece, including not only the word count, outline and flow, but the audience, the key points it needs to convey, as well as the tone and voice it is striving to communicate with, the better. What is the customer like? Formal or friendly? Direct or meandering? What do they like? Corporate jargon or simplicity? Gravitas or humor? Do they have any pet peeves about capitalization, punctuation, subheads, lists, dashes or any other details? Do they follow AP style? If there is a project brief, corporate (or executive) style guide or recent examples, be sure to share those as well. Equally important, once the piece is finalized, circle back with any client changes or feedback, so your editor will be even more prepared next time.


Orsi JormanAbout the Author: Orsi supports content creation and content strategy for high-profile corporate, consumer and cause clients of Red Havas — and she could not be happier. Her specialties include writing, editing, ghostwriting, blogging, marketing, digital/social and experiential, all in AP style.